At a recent event where a commemorative centennial volume on Indira Gandhi’s life and works was released, President Pranab Mukherjee made a point of her commitment to self-reliance in food. The release of a coffee table book is not quite the occasion to detail the obstacles she faced, and the resoluteness with which she resolved them, but that is quite an untold story. It is a little difficult for the present generation to visualise an India which is living from hand to mouth. Food reserves were unthinkable. The food policy literally consisted of meeting deficits from PL 480 US imports and organising their distribution. Mrs Gandhi knew that global aid and the Bretton Woods systems wanted India to be dependent in this nexus. I was fortunate in getting a ringside view of this great episode in India’s history.
I had modeled a long-term plan for Gujarat and Sukhomoy Chakravarty brought me to the Planning Commission to head its powerful Perspective Planning Division (PPD), an honour I accepted for term deputation, since I did not want to join the government permanently. My predecessor, the indomitable Pitamber Pant, was a friend of Indira Gandhi. The files I inherited were always marked Pitamber to Indira. Her perspectives were clear. She was humiliated when India had to beg for grain and she wanted India to be liberated from these clutches. The PPD was mandated to build a plan for food self-reliance and if there were difficulties, to get back to the PMO.
I discovered that planning for grains was done without any field-tested data. Unlike industrial plans, there were no projects or field-based studies used to allocate resources. The norms used, like an acre of additional irrigation would give x amount of grain, were entirely fictitious. The first thing we did was to collect district-wise information on the success and failure stories and build a reasonable data-based plan. I asked the district collectors to send us data for the early 1970s and we compared it with the 1960s to build our plan. We said we needed eight hundred crores for irrigation — half the amount to complete
10 projects languishing for a decade and the rest for tube wells. We said if we did all this, we would produce 125 million tonnes of grain in 1978-79. We became the laughing stock of the finance ministry and the World Bank said only the long-haired boys of the Planning Commission can dream all this. They said India’s food production will be 118 million tonnes and we will need seven to 10 million tonnes of imports. The Economic Survey said we would not cross 122 million tonnes in a good year to mock us. Indira Gandhi stood by the long-haired boys of the Planning Commission. After the budget of 1975-76, she forced the finance ministry, despite all its scepticism, to allocate the money the PPD wanted as a supplementary budgetary allocation. We never looked back. Our production of grains in 1978-79 was
127 million tonnes, as President Mukherjee said at the centennial function, and those who made fun of us were profuse in their praise.
In Washington for a seminar in 1980, I was asked how India exceeded its target by two million tonnes. Back in Ahmedabad by then, I could say with pride I come from Gujarat and we always play safe. Now, of course, those who were sceptics then, also take credit, as they did on the centennial occasion. This gives one a comfortable feeling. Indira Gandhi’s victories belong to India. The next time you go to a party and eat well, remember this great leader and her courage in May 1975, in doing the right thing, even when criticised. In many developing countries, you can’t splurge without feeling guilty.
In real terms, the allocation to agriculture in 1975-76 was not exceeded in any year at least until the mid-1990s. After that, the CSO has not given comparable data, so I don’t know. Great leaders act and don’t just talk.